The Music Portal

The Music Portal

Yes, that magical, mystical music portal that we’ve all experienced. Ever hear a song on the radio that instantly transported you to a memory, to another time and place? Of course you have! It seems amazing, doesn’t it? Happens to me all the time… I can leave my recliner at any moment with the help of a good old tune. It’s powerful, I know, but why not? It’s been well-documented that the sense of smell and the sound of music are the two semi-tangible elements that stream into both sides of our brain. Starts to make sense, right?

I began to understand the power and depth of music one afternoon while playing an old piano in a retirement home. There were maybe 30 old folks sitting around the room, many in wheelchairs. I was playing all the old tunes I knew, as those were the tunes most of them listened to when they were young. I knew they remembered them, but I didn’t realize the depth of it all until I felt someone kicking the back of my piano bench. I was getting irritated with it until I realized the kicking was in time to the song I was playing.

When I finished the tune, I spun around to see who was kicking my bench to find an old man in a wheelchair with a glazed look in his eyes, staring off into space. Behind him, holding the chair in place was a lovely, middle-aged woman with tears in her eyes. I asked, “Does my playing bother him? Does he want me to stop?”
She wiped away some tears, then, “Oh no! Are you kidding? This is the first time he’s shown any sign of life in over a year! Please, please keep on playing!”

Music As A Time Traveler

There is old piano music that takes me back to Peru in 1959, when Joe “Fingers” Carr was one of the only records we had down there. There is music by The Crusaders, which always puts me in the big house of Caribou Ranch, Colorado, as that was most of the music they played on the overhead back in 1982.

The Crusaders

I’m streaming The Crusaders right now, and I can tell you, I’m there, at the writing desk in the main room of the big house, animal heads on the walls, the sweet smell of old logs, long-aged by the inner warmth of creature comforts, the Crusaders quietly jazzing down from the speakers high above me.

Music And Memories, Wanted Or Unwanted

Because I’ve been a musician for most of my life, I have a ton of musical memories, almost all of them good, sweet memories of fine times with special people. A few of them, however, bring back memories and their accompanying emotions that I’d rather not indulge. But music and the memory doesn’t allow me to pick and choose. The memories and emotions just come, despite what I might not want to remember or feel at the moment.

Several degrees of separation can also work to fire up the old music memory machine. For example – any Elton John song can, at any moment, kick up quite a few memories and places for me. I arranged all the horns and strings for an album of Elton’s drummer, Nigel Olsson. All the rhythm tracks were cut in Atlanta, the horns and strings in L.A; the background vocals at North Star in Boulder, and the lead vocals up at Caribou Ranch, outside Boulder. Caribou was then owned and operated by James Guercio, who produced the albums for Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Chicago. He had a great studio there, Michael Jackson recorded there, along with Billy Joel, Earth, Wind & Fire, Carol King and about 70 more. Yup, it was a hot studio back then.

Caribou Ranch Recording Studio

And just in case any of you are thinking I’m something of a name-dropper, well hell yes I am! If you’re in the biz, it’s what you do. My god, it’s just about become an art form in New York and L.A. As you might notice, even I am getting a little better at it.

Nigel’s producer at the time was James Stroud, who was producing Nigel’s album for Bang Records in Atlanta. He was given a 50K budget to produce the whole album (which was a healthy amount for an album in the early ’80’s) and James had decided to use several different studios, probably to spread the wealth around and get his name out there at the same time.

In L.A. we did the strings at Johnny’ Mandel’s Mendez Recording. where I was introduced to Glenn Dicterow, who had just been chosen as the new concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, a position he ended up holding for 34 years. We recorded the lead vocals at the Scotti Brothers studio. where I met Susan Anton. A whole ‘nother story there. In Boulder, we recorded some of the backing vocals at North Star, and the remaining backing vocals and synth overdubs up at Caribou Ranch, maybe 10 miles up in the mountains from Boulder.

But it is the horn section recording at Krystal in L.A. that I want to tell you about, as it’s the only negative memory I have of that whole Nigel Olsson recording experience. See, James and I were told that the L.A. contractor could get us the Tower Of Power horns for our date. I was excited about that, and quickly researched Tower Of Power… how many horns, which kind, and what their upper range limits were. Well, they were all great players, and their range was sweet, and very high. So, I wasn’t worried about writing out of their range at all.

Too bad, too, because when recording time came, the Tower Of Power horns cancelled on us (if they’d ever actually been booked at all, which I now doubt) and we got instead some of L.A.’s better studio horns. They were good, of course, but the lead trumpet couldn’t play the highest notes I’d written. After 20 minutes of failed takes, the producer, James, called for a break, in which time he took most of the horns into an inner office, leaving me and the second trumpet outside to consider what to do next.

The second trumpet guy looked over at me and said, “Mind if I try that lead part?”
I said no, go for it. He played the whole thing flawlessly, and I was amazed. “Why weren’t you playing lead on this?” I questioned.
He shrugged. “The contractor booked me as second. Nothing I could say.”

I was sitting there, fairly pissed that the contractor had messed up my recording session, when James and the other players came back into the studio. “James,” I started, “This guy can play it beautifully, hit all the notes, and…”
“We’re changing the arrangement,” James interrupted. “We’re going to delete these 8 measures where those high notes are, and we’ll fill them in later with a synth part.” And that was that. Such a shame, too, because the horn parts were, if I do say so, really great and would have added an exciting dimension to that particular song.

It became apparent to me that James had listened to and believed the other horn players, who evidently told him my written parts were too high And that was the beginning of the end of my association with James Stroud. Oh, we worked together after that, but I could tell he’d lost faith in my arranging, and as soon as the Nigel Album was finished, so were James and I.

I guess it all turned out for the best, as James soon moved to Nashville, and there was no way in hell I would have moved up there with him, to arrange horns and strings for country rock tunes. Nope.

Turns out I lived happily ever after in Atlanta without any of the politics and contractor’s lies or stupid blunders to distract from the creative process. We did our own contracting, and never had a failed session because of it. We had to deal with irritated musicians from time to time, who thought they should have been called to our session, but weren’t. But that was the worst of it, and that only happened because Atlanta was, after all, a fairly small music community within the big city, and as such, most everyone knew who was getting calls for sessions… and who weren’t.

So see, even my “unwanted memory” turned out okay. And this whole story was kicked up by my listening to a few Crusaders tunes this morning. The power of music in emotion and memory? I rest my case.

Steve Hulse

2 Replies to “The Music Portal”

  1. Absolutely right about music triggering memories. If I hear Rubber Soul, i am once again doing homework in Seattle. And I know which song the reel to reel tape runs out in the middle of (I’m Lookin Through you.)

    Many years later, I had a band that had arranged a song my father had written, as an instrumental. In his later years his memory became pretty poor. One time I tried playing that waltz for him and asked if he remembered it. He said no. But then after a few minutes, he started singing it! It was amazing.

    Years after he died, my mom sent me the score for that song, and it turns out I had remembered it wrong in one regard. It wasn’t a waltz, it was in 7:4! So he managed to remember the song even though I was playing it fundamentally wrong! Perhaps that’s even more amazing!

  2. Mr. Hulse – Well once again your amazing memory treats us to a walk down music lane. Well done, Sir. You have painted such a vivid picture that you even had me thinking back on songs of long ago. And as you are aware, music is something that I do not listen to. The interesting part to me was that I actually enjoyed it. The various tunes all stirred a memory – a positive memory – and that is good. Thanks for a great story.

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